If you ever played the video game Duke Nukem, you might remember his signature catchphrase, “I’ve got balls of steel.” This use of balls features widely in the English lexicon, as in:
break my balls
have (someone) by the balls
So it’s understandable that when you encounter a phrase or idiom with “balls” in it, the cojones are a go-to cognate. But that can lead one astray. Take, for example, “balls to the wall,” meaning to be racing flat-out. This comes to us from aviation, where the throttles are topped with knobs and are pushed fully forward for maximum power.
If you go to Louisville, Kentucky — as my wife and I do as frequently as we can — you have to eat, so you’re always on the lookout for worthwhile restaurants. Frankly, we tend to eat at our favorite spots whenever we visit, but before our last weekend there, I checked the restaurant-tagged Google map for new places. There was one of our favorites, Doc Crow’s — oysters on the shell, exceptional pork rinds — and just behind it was a bar called The Troll Pub. I clicked over to its website and immediately exclaimed “What the fuck?” which was only partly an expression of my incredulity, because at The Troll Pub they have WTF happy hours — Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays — so I was also just reading what was in front of me. But what an offense! I stared in disbelief at WTF, a perfectly good profanity, brought down by a marketing pun. “How often are we taken in by this indirection?” I wondered. In fact, it happens more than you’d think, let alone hope. I learned this when shopping around for fun game night games, some of which perpetrate similar puns.
During her storied career as a stage, film, and television actress, Kristen Bell has received many honors and awards — she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6225 Hollywood Boulevard! — but, until now, no one has recognized her as the Queen of Television Euphemism. From her thespian throne, she ruled 2019, first as Eleanor Shellstrop in Seasons Three and Four of NBC’s The Good Place, a series in which profanity is automatically and ontologically replaced with euphemisms. Eleanor tries to say things like “motherfucking shitballs,” but they all come out like “motherforking shirtballs.” So, there’s no swearing in the Good Place, except that the Good Place is actually the Bad Place, so it’s hard to tell whether euphemism is diabolical or divine. Then, thanks to Hulu, Bell reappeared as Veronica Mars, grown-up private eye, in Season Four of Veronica Mars, another show in which euphemism is practically a character. Continue reading →
The use of swear words in US TV series attracts a lot of attention. There are those who revel in creating mash-ups of swearing, and there are those who monitor and oppose swearing (like the Parents Television Council). Rules by the Federal Communications Commission restrict the broadcasting of profane and indecent speech to the evening and night and forbid obscene speech. But these rules don’t apply to subscription-based television such as cable or streaming services. Elsewhere I’ve looked at how frequent swearing is, but here I want to approach swearing a little differently. Basically, what I’m asking is: How do TV series use swear words? And what are their functions?
Let’s start with the first question. Most TV series do seem to use at least one swear word, especially if expressions such as oh my god are counted. But there are a lot of different ways in which TV series can handle swears. I’ve tried to catalogue some of these below.